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Hold the Front Page!

David Benedict Metro Life: The Magazine, 2003-05-23

Hold the Front Page! image #0

Zoë Wanamaker returns to the stage this week in His Girl Friday, a revival of quick-witted newspaper comedy The Front Page.  And, she tells David Benedict, she takes her comedy seriously.

The one thing Zoë Wanamaker is certain of is that she doesn't see herself as a comedienne.  But surely she's the woman who wisecracked her way to an Olivier award in the American classic Once in a Lifetime, triumphed in Terry Johnson's Dead Funny, and is currently sailing through series four of the hit sitcom My Family?

'Obviously, some people must see my comedy side or I wouldn't be cast, but it always fools me.  I thought Dead Funny was a vicious, cruel, wonderful look at relationships.  At the first preview everyone laughed at things my character said and I was completely shocked.'

Which is exactly why she's so good at it.  Wanamaker plays the truth, whatever the genre.  She was a mesmerising Emilia to Ian McKellen's Iago in Othello, won every award in sight on both sides of the Atlantic for Electra and gave Helen Mirren a run for her money in the first Prime Suspect with her scalding performance as Moyra, who stood by her man until her terrifying crack-up.

There's a little (offstage) murder and heaps more laughs in her latest role as lightning-witted ace reporter Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday, formerly famous as the screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell made in 1940.  And before anyone groans about theatre cravenly caving in to Hollywood, check out the pedigree.  His Girl Friday began life as the 1928 play The Front Page by American journalists-turned-playwrights Hecht and MacArthur.  (It was later remade rather too sourly by Billy Wilder, while Kathleen Turner and Burt Reynolds transplanted the plot to TV journalism in Switching Channels.)

John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation) has blended both play and film into a new stage version, but Wanamaker has movie director Howard Hawks to thank for her casting.  It was he who added romance and sex to the crackerjack Front Page combination by turning male and soon-to-be-married journalist Hildebrand into Hildegard.

Pulling on a roll-up she breaks into a wide grin.  'It looked like fun.  With My Family you get a script on Friday and record it on Thursday.  I really wanted to get up on stage again...  I get thirsty to concentrate on one thing.'

And boy, will she have to concentrate.  The plot has Hildy and her editor and ex-husband Walter (Alex Jennings) racing through a crowd of corrupt press types and assorted fiancés to connive their way to the scoop of the century.  Then there's the breakneck dialogue.  The average person delivers 110 words per minute - in His Girl Friday the movie, they hit 240.

So it's hardly surprising that after rehearsal Wanamaker appears slightly tired.  Excitement, however, keeps lighting up her face, which looks a good deal softer off-camera.  Being interviewed clearly makes her less than comfortable.  Her conversation nonetheless is peppered with a filthy laugh.  You hear it when she talks about her family.  The daughter of Chicago-born actor Sam Wanamaker and his wife Charlotte, who gave up acting for motherhood, she's the middle of three sisters.  Are they close?

'When my younger sister was born, my elder sister attached herself to her.  They ganged up on me.'  Did there come a time when you felt you no longer needed to play those games?  'You would think!'  She pauses.  'I don't think I was the peacemaker, but I was always accused of sitting on the fence.  In my defence, I always feel I can see another person's point of view.  That's my problem.  It's hell in family situations.'

She's being mischievous.  But that empathetic quality is damn useful for an actor.  With both parents now dead she seems relaxed about her past.  Her father's single-mindedness in founding Shakespeare's Globe Theatre caused severe family strife but she beams with pride when she mentions that she has just collected a 'Sam Wanamaker lived here' blue plaque voted by Southwark Council.

Echoing the Jonathan Miller joke, she describes her upbringing as 'Jew-ish'.  Her parents were of a generation that rebelled against strict Judaism.  'They didn't want us influenced by any religion.  But I do remember a day when Dad put on a record of a cantor singing and we had to read a children's version of the Old Testament.  But then the phone would ring and we girls would all disappear.'  She pauses.  'I miss my parents' Yiddishness.  It connected me to America.'

That sounds strange coming from someone who can be as quirkily English as she was in Paradise Postponed or Gormenghast.  But then, she has lived here since she was three.  'When I'm in America I feel very English.  I'm not aggressive about being an actor as they are in New York.  It's elbow time there and I was brought up not to push myself to the front.  I wish I'd believed in myself earlier.'

This is her only regret.  She's happily married to actor Gawn Grainger, and for the past three years she has achieved the actor's dream: non-stop work.  'It could all vanish overnight,' she adds, nervously.  That looks unlikely.  But she's aware that Britain breeds a scepticism about actors.  'People think it's a doddle, you're having a good time, pulling a fast one.  But it's my career.  As long as I can stand up and remember the lines, I never want to stop doing it.'

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